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The book is about two weeks from being completed, and a publishing deal is likely to follow shortly thereafter. It’s an exciting time. I mark my progress by how many pages I get rid of, toward my goal of 30 pages or fewer for each chapter. This comes from my process of writing, which is probably the most inefficient way to write a book imaginable, but it’s the only way I can visualize it — by thinking of it as a block of reality from which I have to carve a piece of art.
I started with a comprehensive outline of every noteworthy event that happened during the two years covered by the book so that I could break it into chapters. (This required an enormous amount of research through my various archives to find everything and put it in chronological order.) Then I filled in this outline with every relevant blog post, article, journal entry, email, etc., until I had a massive monstrosity of information compiled for each chapter. Then I filled in the holes. Any event that wasn’t yet documented anywhere but in my head was put down on paper. Some chapters, which in the end would be less than 30 pages long, peaked at over 200 pages. Each.
So now I had the massive block of stone from which I had to carve out my book. The first time I ran through each chapter and cleared out all the obviously-unnecessary pieces, I called it the “hack and slash” phase. In this way I’d get most chapters down to about 100 pages each. This was when the outline of the figure would finally start to take shape.
But it was only the beginning. I went through several more refining processes (far too exhausting to detail here) until, at last, I was down to 50 or so pages. At this point I would switch from single-space to double-space, which meant things were getting serious. I was close, so close, to having a final product. I could look at the statue now and see how to position things for maximum effect and which elements, even if I loved them and had been working on them for months, just didn’t fit with the overall purpose and aesthetic. This was the part where entire sections got deleted.
Of course, even once it’s down near the target length of 30 pages per chapter (which adds up to a 360 page book since I have 12 chapters), the work’s not done. Now you get to do the fun part, final edits. Little details — the eyelashes, the arc of the fingers, the shape of the moon, the perfect words to describe indescribable feelings (or at least the best you can come up with).
At last your sculpture, your cathedral, your book is almost in its ultimate shape. One final full-scale edit to round out any remaining creases, wrinkles, inconsistencies, loose threads, metaphors that don’t quite work, footnotes that distract more than enlighten…
Almost there. Almost there. The first eight chapters are long finished, and Chapter 9 is down to 36 pages, Chapter 10 down to 35, Chapter 11 down to 63 (it’s one of those monster chapters, like Chapter 6, that tries to cover way too much and will ultimately be savaged painfully into shape, and will hopefully stand out as one of the most action-packed, bang-for-the-buck chapters), and Chapter 12 down to 46.
Almost there. Almost there.
Meanwhile, I’ve been in regular contact with my friend Rania in Palestine (a major character in the book who makes her first appearance in Chapter 2), whose life at the moment is such a roller coaster of ups and downs it’s a miracle she has any sanity left. Since her husband was let out of prison, he’s been scrambling to find temporary, random, low-paying jobs to keep the family afloat and pay off the bills (including legal fees) that piled up while he was away for a year. His middling success in the disastrous Tulkarem economy in the closed-off, occupied West Bank has left him pretty depressed. To make things worse, he recently found out he has diabetes, which probably came from his terrible diet in prison.
Here’s the story I wrote about his arrest, as background for those of you who are new to this blog. And here are some pics of Rania’s kids that she recently sent me:
There’s good news, though. A friend of Rania’s recommended her to work for an organization called Psy-Medical Social Work, an NGO that helps Palestinians with psychological problems. This is what Rania went to university to study, and it will be more stable and pay better than any job her husband (who has no education past high school) will be able to find. He has always supported her to follow her dreams of education and a career, and he would be a great and happy stay at home dad.
The bad news is, she has almost no computer skills and relatively little experience in the field. So they’ve agreed to take her on in an unpaid training/internship capacity for a year, after which there’s an excellent chance she’ll be offered a full-time, good-paying job that will make a difference in a lot of lives.
She’s told me about case studies she’s been taking on so far — addicts, post-traumatic stress, domestic abuse — and she says she finds it very fulfilling and empowering to be able to help them. And she loves getting out of the house, meeting so many people, and feeling like she matters to the larger world. If she gets hired full-time, she’ll be able to fulfill other dreams — supporting her family, finishing building her house (she’s now living in the house of a brother-in-law who’s outside the country but may come back any time), and relieving her husband of the constant need to find low-paying menial labor.
But this year of unpaid internship entails a financial burden, namely the cost of childcare and transportation to and from work every day. The good news is, the total costs are only about $200 a month. I paid for the first two months, but that money is about to run out. We’ll need a total of $2,000 to cover her expenses for the rest of the year while her husband takes care of basic living expenses with his work. Hopefully this internship will be her ticket to financial stability for years to come.
She hates relying on help from others. But she knows that without help right now, she won’t be able to get this dream off the ground, and anything is worth it to her for a chance to support her children without constant insecurity and instability, all the while making a difference for her country and striking a blow for women’s rights in her community. I know it’s been a long saga, but she’s always been inexpressibly grateful for this lifeline that has kept her dreams and her family afloat through seemingly impossible trials, and we’ve both been so grateful for your help.
I’ll also pay for the last two months, which means we only need to raise $1,600. If 160 people can spare $10 each, we’ll pretty much be there. And hopefully after that, she’ll never have to ask for help again.
So if in this month of thanksgiving you’re looking for a concrete way to help someone, with no overhead or middle men (other than yours truly walking to the nearest Western Union), this would be my humble suggestion. If you’d rather send money directly to her, I can give you the details of how to Western Union it to her yourself. My Paypal email account is firstname.lastname@example.org, or I can let you know where to send a check.
Thanks so much, and hope you’re staying warm,
UPDATE: Chapter 11 is down to 44 pages, Chapter 12 down to 31. And there was much rejoicing. Yay.
The Galapagos are “hot spot” islands, which means they exist because of a pocket of magma under the crust that tends to boil over at semi-regular intervals. The oldest islands are in the east, moving toward the South American coast at a few centimeters per year, while the youngest and most barren are in the west, still smoldering and with only a few hundred thousand years under their belts. The most recent eruption was in 2005, a minor bubbling-up that stayed within its caldera on the largest island, Isabela, about which we’ll speak more later.
The next day, Day 4, we were heading south to Floreana Island, which has some kind of scandalous history about a European woman coming with some men for some stupid reason and everybody dying. Frankly I didn’t care. There’s enough human stupidity in the world right now without trawling through history for more of it. But feel free to look it up if you find that kind of thing interesting.
Our guide, a younger guy with a no-nonsense demeanor, spoke relatively little English but gamely tried to summarize to us what he said at length to the others in Spanish and to answer and respond to any questions we had. After a choppy, crowded, three-hour speed boat ride, we landed near a tiny grouping of shacks and had the usual fish-and-rice-and-salad lunch in one of them. Then we took an excruciatingly bumpy bus ride inland to a cloudy, jungly area where we hiked to places where pirates apparently used to hang out and watch for rival or friendly ships down below.
Afterwards we hung out back down at the dock for about an hour watching lounging iguanas, playful sea lions, and huge sea turtles flapping leisurely by just under the water’s surface. It was like a three-ring circus. Two juvenile sea lions had found a plastic bow from a bow-and-arrow set and were pushing it around with their noses, pulling it around in their teeth, fighting over it, and flipping around it, like an improvised Sea World act.
By this point I was so overwhelmed by the richness of life around me, I started to feel like I did when I visited Florence and was so overpowered by the casual wealth of masterpieces strewn about, I felt like I couldn’t take one more painting. Or like my nephew Dylan did one Christmas when he was about five — my parent’s only grandchild at the time — and he’d been opening so many presents for so long that he finally started to cry. I guess the overall feeling was being viscerally reminded that our world is like a constant Christmas with too many presents.
We went to a bay nearby to snorkel, and at first we couldn’t see much, then we heard the cry — “Tortuga!” — and followed the fingers on the boat pointing toward another marine tortoise, its shell at least three feet across. When I first saw him from the side, I thought he was another snorkeler and slowed down so as not to risk colliding with him. Then I saw what it was and swam four feet above and a bit behind him, following him as he flipped casually through the wavelets. I lost him after a while, just in time for another shout and another tortoise, which I found and followed again. I wish I could say it was a huge thrill, but by now all the rich amazingness had become thrillingly banal, as if this was simply how things were and had always been.
It was the boys’ last night, and we celebrated with another dinner on Charles Binford Street. The next day I packed up and caught the daily 2pm boat to Puerto Villamil on the island of Isabela. I checked into my hotel, Coleta Iguana (Iguana Cove), better known as Casa Rosada because of its bright pink paint job. It was the last hotel in town with nothing but white sand beach stretching to the west.
A girl I’d met on Santa Cruz had told me about this place and asked me to say hi to the owner, whom I assumed would be a middle aged man. Instead, he was a dead ringer for Gael Garcia Bernal, only younger and cuter, wearing cargo shorts and sunglasses and welcoming me with casual familiarity. He and his visiting younger brother, just out of high school, were alternately running around arranging new furniture, surfing on the beach, chatting up the clientele, or snoozing in the hammocks on the porch. Not a bad life. The atmosphere reminded me very much of Dahab in the Sinai in Egypt, except the local women were wandering around freely and the shebab (young men), some shirtless, were playing volleyball on the beach.
I unpacked and took a walk around town, swinging first by the salty lagoons behind my hotel, which were reported to be full of flamingos. Soon I saw a flash of shocking pink between the trees. As I approached, walking under a small grove of coconut trees, three flamingos came into view, their heads upside down, straining the water for algae and brine shrimp whose carotene give the feathers their distinctive color. I was enchanted by the grace and beauty (and size!) of the birds. I tend to think of flamingos as goofy or tacky due to Alice in Wonderland and those dreadful lawn ornaments. But here, in the flesh, in the wild, they were nothing but beautiful.
Puerto Villamil was a town of around 1,500, and the main drag had about ten open-air restaurant/shacks selling the usual fish and rice, ham sandwiches, or fried chicken and fries. In the middle of town, I passed a small fenced-in turf soccer pitch where ten-year-old boys were playing with a small contingent of spectators cheering them on. After about twenty minutes of watching them play, I realized that I would watch football pretty much anywhere at any time for any reason.
I finally tore myself away to watch the sunset from the beach and found some cool, clear tidal pools with sandy bottoms surrounded by dark volcanic rock and filled with little black fish with orange fins.
That night I went to the outdoor bar next to my hotel, a folding table with a hand-lettered sign set up near four or five low benches, and ordered a caipirinha. I sat down next to a British guy I didn’t know. We started chatting, and he invited me to join his group the next day for snorkeling at Los Tintoreros, a rocky series of islets just south of Puerto Villamil, famous for being a place where sharks hang out, especially the white-tipped Galapagos sharks after which the islets are named.
Our guide was a woman this time, and she took us to a long, straight inlet between two folds of volcanic rock where, sure enough, dozens of white-tipped sharks, ranging from three to six feet long, were sleeping or prowling. Iguanas were hanging out on the rocks above. I wanted to slap on my snorkel and jump in, but the guide assured us we would see sharks in the bay where we would snorkel later.
We got back on the boat, and it swung around to an aquamarine bay where we suited up in our shorty wetsuits and jumped in. There were loads of cool fish and some corals, but so far no sharks. Some sea lions came up to say hi, and this time I was prepared and just let them glide by, looking it us curiously or showing off with a flip or a twist.
When they left, I went nearer to shore to look for sharks, and again I saw what I thought was a fellow snorkeler up ahead, but it turned out to be something much more thrilling: A stingray with a wing span of four or five feet! Images of the Crocodile Hunter meeting his bane kept me from getting too close, but I followed it a while as it waved its wings with infinite grace. Then a sea lion swam by and poked it with its nose, at which point it spazzed out just like I had on the beach a few days earlier and high-tailed it out of there.
The sea lion looked at me as if to say, “Hehe! Look what I did to that jerk!”
I scowled at him as if to say, “Hey, I was watching that!”
He shrugged and swam off.
I poked my head up to look for my boat. When I spotted it, I shouted, “Where are the sharks?”
A German guy poked his head up and repeated in Spanish, “Donde estan los tiburones?”
Our boat driver pointed vaguely at the water.
Yeah. Thanks. Figured that.
We looked for sharks for another half hour, but didn’t find any. When I got back to Puerto Villamil, I tried to find a group to go on a dive trip with at Tortuga Island, a crescent-shaped hill poking out of the sea a few miles south of Isabela, famous for hammerhead sharks and all kinds of amazing big sea life. But no groups were going the next day. So I’ll have to do that (and many other things) next time, inshallah.
I hiked the nearest volcanoes instead, a biggie named Sierra Negra and a smaller parasitic cone called Volcan Chico. It was a 26 kilometer trek all together, first through cloud forests full of all kinds of red and yellow and black and brown finches, then along the rim of Sierra Negra, and finally down to the blasted cones of Volcan Chico, which were too young to support much in the way of life yet.
In some places the rocks were warm and yellow, indicating sulfur still leaking up from the depths. Sierra Negra had last erupted five years earlier, spewing lava that only covered a few square kilometers within the caldera itself and didn’t spill its banks. Still, the whole time I was up there, I kept thinking, Please be stable for just a few more hours. Just a few more hours…
Back in Santa Cruz the next day, I did a little local tour of the bay, and this time the guide didn’t even try to speak any English. We saw more boobies, penguins, crabs, iguanas, waves and sea lions, and a charming swimming hole, a deep crack or canyon in a volcanic field filled with clear blue-green water, fish, locals, and tourists.
I treated myself to a lobster dinner that night, and in the morning I bade farewell to Las Islas Encantadas (The Enchanted Islands), which certainly lived up to the name given to them by early mariners.